Experts Say NASA Could Have Found Life On Venus In 1978 – If The Probe Had Just Known Where To Look

After speeding through space for 123 days, NASA’s Pioneer Venus 2 mission finally reaches its destination: Venus. Now the spacecraft makes its journey into the planet’s thick, sulfurous atmosphere. As it heads towards the surface, it sends out four probes before it’s vaporized by the extreme heat of Venus. The data they collect will sit in files for four decades before scientists notice something very strange. And what they find might just prove that there’s life on Venus.

Among the beliefs that the Venus 2 probes seemingly confirmed all those years ago was that life on Venus was a physical impossibility. NASA personnel and other scientists thought that the Venusian environment was just too hostile. The chances of finding any life there were as near as could be to a big fat zero.

So Venus just hasn’t been a place where researchers have looked for life. They’ve concentrated on Mars and various ice-bound moons such as Enceladus, which orbits Saturn, and Europa, which circles Jupiter. And it’s easy enough to understand why NASA has seen Venus as a planet that’s most unlikely to harbor biological life.

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After all, the Venusian atmosphere just seems so downright hostile. This may come as a surprise to some, given that Earth is the third planet from the Sun and Venus is the second. The two planets are around the same size and have comparable gravity as well. But apart from that there are virtually no other similarities between the planets.

Venus being named after the Roman goddess of love and being the only planet with a female name may give it a gentle aura. But its physical makeup is the stuff of nightmares. The dense atmosphere is a toxic mix of thick sulfurous clouds and carbon dioxide. This heavy soup creates thick yellow clouds that trap heat.

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The heat on Venus is almost implausibly extreme. The temperature can come close to 900° F, making it our solar system’s hottest planet. And just to add to this intense inhospitality, the atmospheric pressure on the planet’s surface is almost 100 times higher than Earth’s. To find that level of pressure on our planet, you’d need to descend around a mile into the depths of the seas.

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Given the conditions on Venus, then, it’s easy enough to see why NASA has concentrated on finding life in other parts of our solar system. But the researchers behind two scientific papers published in September 2020 have uncovered evidence that shows NASA may well have made a blunder.

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One of the papers is based on information gathered via a high-powered telescope, the Atacama Large Millimeter Array in Chile. The other involves a reanalysis of the data collected by those probes that Pioneer Venus 2, more commonly known as Pioneer 13, took to Venus more than 40 years ago. So what was this NASA Pioneer program?

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NASA’s Pioneer project got going in the late 1950s when the space race with the Soviet Union was very much at its height. Pioneer 0, Pioneer 1 and Pioneer 2, as the first three were named, all launched before the turn of the decade. The aim was to get a spacecraft to the Moon and to photograph it before the Soviets did.

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But since none of them reached the Moon, all those missions can be described as failures. The news became better with Pioneers 3 and 4, both of which did actually accomplish their aims, as did Pioneer 5. There was then a hiatus in the program until the mid-1960s when Pioneers 6 to 9 were successfully launched to investigate the Sun.

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The Pioneer project changed direction with number 10 in 1972. This spacecraft flew past Jupiter and then became the first ship to travel right out of our solar system. Incredibly, it continued to send back data right up until 2003, at which point it was a staggering 7 billion miles from Earth.

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The next Pioneer, number 11, traveled through space to pass close to Saturn and Jupiter, and like its predecessor it then headed off into deep space. Pioneer 12, also known as Venus Orbiter, launched in 1978 and reached its target the same year. And that brings us on to Pioneer 13, which also flew to Venus. This is the ship that collected data that some researchers are now claiming provides evidence of life in the Venusian atmosphere.

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Pioneer 13 was sometimes referred to as the Venus Multiprobe and was regarded as a sister mission to Pioneer 12. It launched in the summer of 1978, a couple of months after Pioneer 12 had headed off into space. The Pioneer 13 spacecraft, known rather unglamorously as a “bus,” was propelled out of Earth’s atmosphere by an Atlas-Centaur rocket.

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The Pioneer 13 bus was a stubby cylinder that stood nearly 10 feet tall and was about 8 feet in diameter. It weighed in at some 1,900 pounds overall, with around 1,300 pounds of that comprising the four probes that were mounted on it. The bus had no heat shields and wasn’t intended to survive the descent into Venus’ fiery atmosphere after it’d launched the probes.

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The bus was able to make some scientific measurements before it was vaporized by the extreme heat. But the core part of the mission was those probes. There were three identical small devices and a fourth that was considerably larger. The latter had been mounted in the top section of the bus with the three smaller ones arrayed around it.

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And the bus successfully launched all four probes. NASA control then lost contact with it when the spacecraft was at an altitude of around 70 miles above Venus’ surface. The three smaller probes were just 30 inches in diameter and each contained an incredible array of instruments to measure everything from temperature to pressure.

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These three probes were programmed to head towards different areas of Venus. As expected, two of the probes burnt up in the descent into the Venusian cauldron – but one survived. Although this hadn’t been planned, the surviving probe managed to broadcast messages for 60 minutes from the planetary surface until it too lost contact.

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Unlike the three small probes, the single larger one – about 5 feet in diameter – was equipped with a parachute. This delayed its journey towards the Venusian surface, giving it longer to collect data. The probe’s cutting-edge analytic equipment included a gas chromatograph, a cloud particle size spectrometer and an infrared radiometer.

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Taken in the whole, the four probes were able to transmit a remarkable amount of new information about the Venusian atmosphere and surface back to NASA control. The other mission mentioned earlier, Pioneer 12, was in orbit around Venus five days before Pioneer 13’s probes were launched and it sent additional data to the scientists on Earth.

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So those four probes launched from Pioneer 13 plus the Pioneer 12 Orbiter spacecraft collected ground-breaking info about Venus and its atmosphere. But it would be another four decades before researchers reanalyzed this information. And when they did, their work revealed something that’d previously been missed by the scientists who’d pored over the findings years earlier.

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So what exactly did this re-examination of the data reveal? The answer is one word: phosphine. The presence of this chemical just could be a clue that points towards life in the atmosphere of Venus. The scientists involved in the new work had focused on the data collected by the larger of the four probes.

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One of the experts involved in the recent study, California State Polytechnic University’s Professor Rakesh Mogul, explained his findings to Scientific American in October 2020. He said that the original researchers may have underestimated just how powerful one of the instruments on the large probe actually was. This meant that they hadn’t noticed that it might have detected phosphine. And the presence of phosphine could mean biological life exists in the Venusian atmosphere.

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Mogul and his colleagues had re-examined data collected by the large probe’s neutral mass spectrometer. The original analysis had searched for substances such as argon, carbon dioxide and sulfur dioxide. But the researchers back then hadn’t considered the possibility that there might be phosphine present. And Rakesh believes that they missed the trace marks of this key chemical.

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“We were able to extract some data from the literature from about 40 years ago,” Mogul told Scientific American. “And we think we’re able to identify some interesting things. We believe that the evidence suggests the presence of phosphine.” He added that this had previously been missed simply because the scientists at the time believed there was “no way” this chemical could be there.

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Now the obvious question is: why should we get so excited about the possible presence of phosphine in the atmosphere of Venus? It doesn’t necessarily provide evidence that there’s life there, after all. Well, Harvard University molecular astrophysicist Dr. Clara Sousa-Silva explained the possible significance of phosphine to The New York Times in September 2020.

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Sousa-Silva pointed out that phosphine has been found in the atmospheres of Saturn and Jupiter by NASA’s Cassini module. But in that context, phosphine isn’t necessarily a sign of life. Phosphine consists of four atoms: three hydrogen and one phosphorus. On those two giant gas planets, the immense pressure and heat that prevails can create phosphine by forcing the requisite molecules together.

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It’s a different story, though, on rocky and relatively small planets such as Venus and our own Earth. There the atmospheres lack the energy to produce phosphine in the manner that those on Saturn and Jupiter can. But phosphine certainly is found on Earth, where it’s produced by living creatures. These are anaerobic microbial organisms, in other words life forms that can live without oxygen.

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Dr. Sousa-Silva said of the likes of Earth and Venus, “As far as we can tell, only life can make phosphine.” You don’t need to look far for phosphine on our planet, because it actually exists in the intestines of human beings. It’s also found in worms that live in the depths of the oceans and in penguin and badger dung. In the Breaking Bad TV show the main protagonist, chemistry teacher Walter White, even used it to poison a couple of his enemies.

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And the presence of phosphine in the Venusian atmosphere has been confirmed by another source as well. You’ll recall that earlier we mentioned that two papers had been published in September 2020 on the subject. The authors of the second paper took a different route in searching for evidence of phosphine in Venus’ atmosphere.

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Jane Greaves, an astronomer at Wales’ University of Cardiff, began hunting for evidence of phosphine and other chemicals on Venus in 2017. Her research was initially conducted using Hawaii’s powerful James Clerk Maxwell Telescope to scan the planet’s atmosphere. She told The New York Times, “I got intrigued by the idea of looking for phosphine, because phosphorus might be a bit of a sort of go-no-go for life.”

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Greaves found phosphine at a level of 20 parts per billion. That seems a tiny amount, of course, but it exceeds the level in Earth’s atmosphere by a factor of anywhere between 1,000 and one million. Remembering her reaction when she made this discovery, Greaves told Scientific American, “I was stunned.”

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In 2019 scientists turned to an even more powerful telescope located in Chile: the Atacama Large Millimeter Array. The observations from that instrument confirmed the findings from 2017, showing phosphine to be present at concentrations of between five and 20 parts per billion. And there’s another piece of evidence that could point to there being anaerobic life in Venus’ atmosphere.

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If it’s correct that there was phosphine present in the Venusian atmosphere in 1978, and that it was still there in 2019, then something must be creating it. The thing is, phosphine deteriorates in light. William Bains, a biochemist at MIT credited as co-author on both the 2020 papers about phosphine on Venus, explained this to The New York Times.

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Bains said, “The light is constantly breaking the phosphine down, so you have to continuously replenish it.” This phosphine must be coming from somewhere, then. But what about possible explanations for the presence of phosphine other than biological life? Well, the level of volcanism and lightning storms apparently isn’t high enough to explain the creation of phosphine in this instance.

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According to Bains, “What we’ve done is rule out all other sources of phosphine other than life.” There are scientists who take a different view, though. Among them is biologist Gerald Joyce of California’s Salk Institute. Somewhat dismissively, he told The New York Times, “Despite prior speculation (mostly by the same authors), this can hardly be taken as a bio-signature. The detection of phosphine is not robust evidence for life, only for anomalous and unexplained chemistry.”

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Another who expressed skepticism about the phosphine findings was a Pennsylvania State University geoscientist, James Kasting. He said, “The model atmospheric composition that [the phosphine authors] show is, at best, incomplete.” And a further expert, astro-biologist Michael Wong of the University of Washington, had a somewhat different take on the phosphine evidence.

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Wong told Scientific American, “It’s a really puzzling discovery, because phosphine doesn’t fit in our conception of what kinds of chemicals should be in Venus’ atmosphere.” He added, “It’s very speculative to say that there is life on Venus. But it’s also speculative to say there definitely can’t be life on Venus.”

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Another scientist, the University of Wisconsin-Madison’s Sanjay Limaye, got down to brass tacks. He asserted, “The bottom line is we don’t know what’s going on.” And perhaps even the researchers involved in publishing the papers about phosphine on Venus might not entirely disagree with Wong or Limaye. That’s because they’ve said unequivocally that more research is needed to confirm their findings.

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A planetary scientist involved in writing both the 2020 papers, Sara Seager, told The New York Times, “This is an astonishing and ‘out of the blue’ finding. It will definitely fuel more research into the possibilities for life in Venus’s atmosphere.” Her fellow author Sousa-Silva added, “We know that it is an extraordinary discovery. We may not know just how extraordinary without going back to Venus.”

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So it seems that the best way to confirm or refute the idea that phosphine means Venus harbors life will be to send a spaceship to the planet to have another look. But as we’ve seen, NASA may have missed vital potential evidence of life on Venus for more than four decades. There’s better news now, at least. NASA administrator Jim Bridenstine took to Twitter to state, “It’s time to prioritize Venus.”

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